One of the sad trends we continue to see in OSH centers around the use of respirators and facial hair.  OSHA has stated more times that I can count on two hands that facial hair is NOT allowed in the face-to-mask seal area.  In fact, personnel are NOT even permitted to be fit-tested if they have facial hair.  And yet we still see personnel who are in respirator programs with full beards; this year we have even seen workers with full beards wearing respirators in clear violation of their company's policy/procedures.  The argument put forth is the same lame argument I have been hearing for nearly 30 years (going all the way back to my days as a firefighter)... '"I can get a good seal with my beard, so why can't I XXXXXXX".  The answer is simple and can be stated in a one-word response:  CONSISTENCY. 

Even though a worker passed a fit test (albeit improperly) with some facial hair, the length and thickness of that facial hair will not be the same weeks/months later.  This can be seen clearly from the 1983 study by McGee and Oestenstad where they tested this theory.  And yes, a lot has changed since 1983; however, facial hair on humans has NOT!  Here are the scientific studies OSHA/NIOSH have used over the years:

1) McGee and Oestenstad investigated facial hair growth and respirator seal protection using the Biopak 60, a Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA). The respirator is designed to maintain a positive pressure, reducing the possibility of a contaminant from entering the breathing apparatus. Eight individuals started off clean shaven and their beards were allowed to grow for a total of eight weeks. They were tested every two weeks. Facial dimensions had to fall within those stated by the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory for full facemasks. No beard was shaved or trimmed for the duration of the study. One important factor emerged. The effect of time on the growth of a beard is not the same for each participant. The results showed that beard growth has a definite effect on respirator facepiece to face seal and that individuals with beards could be placing themselves in a dangerous situation, particularly firefighters or others who are in confined space entry situations. Beard growth had a profound, negative effect on the observed fit factors. Most of the volunteers started with fit factors of 20,000 when first fit tested; after eight weeks, these same workers achieved fit factors ranging only from 14 to 1067.

2) Skretvedt and Loschiavo tested a variety of facial hair lengths, shapes, densities and textures. They determined that a 330-fold drop in protection was experienced by bearded employees and that 77% of bearded individuals wearing full facepiece respirators had fit factors below OSHA’s requirement of 50 and that 100% of them achieved fit factors below 100. None of the clean-shaven wearers fit factors fell below 100. This fit figure for beaded individuals is so great that no confidence can be placed in respiratory protection. They pointed out that a beard is not a static factor. It keeps changing every day along with the orientation of the hair in the sealing surface.

3) Stobbe reviewed 14 studies conducted between 1964 and 1987 on facial hair and respirator leakage. All but two of the studies showed that leakage in respirators increases from 20 to 1,000 times as a result of facial hair. Of the two that did not show leakage, one was on a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and the other in the workplace. Neither of these was statistically significant. Results showed that leakage generally occurred as facial hair increased. A beard provided the greatest degree of fit variability. The problem with this review, as suggested by the authors, is that comparisons between the studies were difficult because of the different protocol used for the individual studies, such as length of a beard grew between measurement, the kinds of respirators tested and the subjects as bearded or clean shaven. They concluded that for negative pressure masks a beard’s effect on respirators was highly variable and that hair growth was highly variable from person to person for a given respirator.  It was Stobbe et al. opinion that for a negative pressure respirator, facial hair is a health hazard and no beards should be permitted. The times when facial hair may be permitted should be very restrictive and needs to be accompanied by training and meet all the requirements of a complete respirator program.

4) Randall and Ebling called attention to another important variable in the growth of facial hair. Their research on healthy Caucasian men showed that for the winter months of January and February, hair growth was lowest, increased in the spring to summer, from March to July where it “reached a peak about 60% above the winter level”.

5) Nagl investigated the growth of pigmented and non-pigmented facial hair. His finding was that “white hairs were always longer than colored hairs after the same period of growth”. Actually, the white hair grew at twice the rate of pigmented hair with some hairs showing a growth rate of three times that of colored hair. This is all due to stage of hair growth cycle, the part of the body the hair is taken from and genetic as well as environmental factors. He agrees with Randall and Ebling [18], that hair growth is “apparently under the control of testosterone”.


For more on these studies and facial hair and respirator fit see: 

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